You may not be familiar with this story, but it has been huge news in Iowa for several months. A formerly retired Catholic priest returned to help out in a small town and has been recognized by a very well known Jewish national newspaper for his efforts.
Quick: What does the international pop star Madonna have in common with a rumpled Catholic priest from Postville, Ia.?
No, it's not that they've both been known to wear crosses. It's that they've both been listed among the most influential people in Judaism.
The Rev. Paul Ouderkirk was included in an annual list put out Thursday by the Forward, a national Jewish newspaper. The newspaper hailed Ouderkirk's efforts on behalf of former workers at Agriprocessors Inc.
The Postville company was the nation's largest producer of kosher meat, which is eaten by many strict observers of Jewish law. Federal agents raided the plant in May, arresting nearly 400 workers on charges of being in the United States illegally.
The Jewish newspaper's list, called the "Forward 50," usually includes only Jews. But editors expanded it to 51 this year to add Ouderkirk. The paper has made a few similar exceptions in the past, including one for Madonna in 2004.
Ouderkirk, 75, had retired from the priesthood. But he came back last spring to serve at St. Bridget's Catholic Church in Postville, where hundreds of immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico sought refuge after the raid.
The priest, who speaks fluent Spanish, has been a nearly constant presence at the church ever since. He has helped feed and house the former workers and their families. And he has spoken to countless reporters from around the world, who have quoted his sharp criticisms of the federal government and of Agriprocessors executives who hired and allegedly exploited the immigrants.
Forward editors named the Agriprocessors controversy as one of the biggest stories in Judaism in 2008.
"The people arrested in the raid had worked in the Postville, Iowa, plant so that Jewish consumers could have affordable kosher meat," the editors wrote. "Yet the job of cleaning up the humanitarian mess that followed that raid was taken up not by the local Jewish community but by Postville's Catholic church and its leader, Father Paul Ouderkirk."
Forward Editor Jane Eisner said the paper's list includes "people who've had the biggest impact on the Jewish story in the past year."
Several other players in the Postville controversy also made the list, including Agriprocessors owner Aaron Rubashkin, who faces criminal charges.
Sister Mary McCauley, who retired this fall as administrator of St. Bridget's, said the honor for Ouderkirk showed that many Jews disapproved of the way Agriprocessors' workers were treated. She noted that Jews from around the country have donated tens of thousands of dollars to the church's humanitarian fund, which helps the former workers.
Ouderkirk could not be reached for comment. He was in New York on Thursday, picking up an award from - get this - a Korean civil-rights organization. Des Moines Register